Sunday, June 12, 2016

Forgiveness Always Comes First: a sermon

“Forgiveness Always Comes First”
Proper 6 Year C 2016, June 12, 2016
St. Thomas’ Episcopal, Richmond

It is always a curious thing, which comes first. The chicken or the egg? The thought or the feeling? Coke or Pepsi? Or how about soccer or football?

We ponder these things. And yet, most of the time it is moot. However, sometimes, what we assume to be new is already true.

I remember when I was in my teenage years, I came back from camp, very serious, and asked my mom if we could talk. We sat down together, and I delicately told her that I thought that God was calling me to be a minister. She responded with, “Of course you are. That is all you ever talk about.” What was news to me, and new to me (or so I thought), was already a done deal, signed and delivered in her mind. What moved me about how she responded was that she already had arrived at the destination I had just perceived. After the initial surprise, it struck me funny at the time. What was a big and ominous life decision for me, to her was my following my natural inclinations and interests. Funny how we see things.

In today’s Gospel, we see the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, and in his unpacking of what she has done for him gives us a unique view into the nature of Grace and the character of God.

Now you might think I exaggerate, or I am using a rhetorical device here,  but in looking at the Gospel this week it struck me how I have never heard anyone speak to this, much less preach on it in all the Sundays I have been in Church. If they did, I must have missed it. Maybe that explains my initial surprise and then delight.

A woman hears that Jesus is dining in her town, and goes and finds a way in to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears and a precious jar of ointment. You heard me preach on another version of this not too long ago. After the host grumbles that no real prophet would let a sinner like her touch him, Jesus addresses the host’s inaction and compares it to her actions.

Jesus begins, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."

Jesus uses his anointing as a teachable moment, a time and place where he can point to this woman and let them see the difference between where they are and where she is.

They were still in a model and understanding where there was an exchange. You do this for me, I will do that for you. When Jesus came into this home, he was still being checked out by the host. “Let’s see if this guy is the real deal or not.” You see, he was important enough to invite home, but not good enough to pull out the good china and silver. All the customary observances of an honored guest were ignored, and Jesus was polite enough to not mention it… until...

Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?"

Now how we would probably say this is “Who does this guy think that he is? I mean really, he thinks he can forgive sins?”

In a little while, after our Prayers of the People, we will have the Prayer of Confession and at the end of that I will do one of the few things that takes an ordained priest to do, or a consecrated bishop, and that thing is to pronounce pardon. But even there, it is a funny thing. As a priest, I am not doing what Jesus is doing here. I am pronouncing the pardon of God for all our sins, and in my priestly capacity I declare it. This is much the same as in a wedding when I declare, “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” Once it is said it is recognized and real. It is a change in condition, from one status to another. In pronouncing pardon I am declaring it done that God has forgiven our sins. But Jesus took it further.

Jesus declared this woman forgiven and saved. He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." Now I want us to look closely at the line that already came.

In so many of our relationships things are tit for tat, you do this and I will do that. We turn so much of our lives into transactions. Too often with our loved ones, even.

But Jesus is very clear, this woman came in under the condition of being forgiven and saved. What she did for Jesus did not allow enable or begin ANYTHING. We too often read it this way because of the way we THINK. Our bias shows.

“I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."

The pivotal word here is “hence.” Her sins, which were many have been forgiven, HENCE she has shown great love. The forgiveness came first.

With God, the forgiveness always comes first.

I think in my life all the times where I did not immediately forgive, or I waited till I got an apology. Contrition makes us feel better. Contrition helps us see that we are right, or even that the offending party deserves our forgiveness. (Or, even worse, the opposite, I will withhold my forgiveness till I see that they are sorry.) And maybe that is why we get this whole Grace concept all wrong.

For too many of us, we see God the way we see the world. We fit God into our worldview instead of fitting our worldview into the vantage point of the God revealed in Christ.

In so many ways God is patient and kind, repeating over and over as author Brennan Manning points out, “There is nothing you can do that will make God love you any more and nothing you can do that will make God love you any less.”

This woman, whose sins were many, found Grace, and it poured out of her, in her actions, in her tears, in her precious ointment all over Jesus’ road-weary feet. She just heard that Jesus was in town, go back and look, and she arrived and would not let anything keep her from responding with her love.

In Luke’s account, this story is not just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem before his crucifixion like in the other Gospels. Luke sets it apart, to emphasis the Grace of the story, I think. His whole Gospel is about Jesus the welcomer, the one inviting in. Zaccheus. Blind Bartimaeus. The hemorrhaging woman who caught the hem of his garment. All those excluded are welcomed in. And even this outsider, this sinner scorned by the host, is uplifted over the one who had the rank and privilege to host the dinner party. In Luke Jesus invites into the party all those who no one else would have considered. That is Jesus. And by definition, that is Grace.

The “hence” of Jesus’ statement throws out the transaction. We might hear it as, “Wow, this lady spent a lot on this huge gift to me, so yeah, I think I will forgive her.” THIS COULD NOT BE FURTHER FROM WHAT TOOK PLACE.

Walking through the host’s door, she was forgiven. Before that, walking out of her house with the ointment, she was forgiven. Even before that, doing whatever she did to “gain” the reputation she had, she was forgiven. She was loved and forgiven before she was even born. And the good news today is, so are we.

Our reaction to this may be like the host, we have not had much forgiven so we do not love as much. Or like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son parable, we did not run away and we did everything right and it is not “fair.” That transactional thinking is rearing its ugly head again. We want God to bless the Good, the Righteous, and scorn the Bad, the Sinners, the Others-Out-There-Weeping-In-The-
Darkness. But God is not like we are, God loves us just like we are. Nothing more, and nothing less than that. We receive UNCONDITIONAL, NON-TRANSACTIONAL LOVE. And that my sisters and brothers is what we call Grace.

And that is why we call Grace amazing. God is not transactional about forgiveness. God’s forgiveness reaches beyond time and space, it predates our best days, and it predates our worst. As Manning said, “There is nothing we can do that would make God love us any more, and there is nothing we can do that would make God love us any less.” THANKS BE TO GOD.

We want to put things first, like getting our act together, or making ourselves worthy of God’s love. God laughs at that naivete, but in a loving way. We put the cart before the horse. God’s love pulls us into relationship; our worthiness does not, and could not, pull God into loving us. Forgiveness comes first, and Grace always wins.

The Apostle Paul in today’s reading shows the wrestling match here, and entirely dismisses the way he was raised. He throws out the rule-keeping and the crossing-of-Tees and dotting-of-Eyes. He rejects those who are in Christ’s church and still try to keep accounts of rights and wrongs, both theirs, and probably more often the case, those of others. He begs the Galatians and us as well to reside in the Grace of God, and let go of the rule-keeping approach to trying to appease God. We cannot. We just cannot. And the best part is, WE DO NOT HAVE TO EVEN TRY.

Let me let Paul speak for himself, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

This week, try and look with new eyes. Turn off the judgment. I understand, it is so very hard. We have been programmed to do it since our earliest days. And in its place, let us ask for God to open our eyes and begin to see with the eyes of Christ, both others and ourselves. Let us make a solemn vow to not “nullify the Grace of God.” And slowly the world will turn until it comes out right.

Thank you, God, that you are not finished with any of us yet. Amen.

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Blessings, Rock